Tagged Education (K-12)

Why Handwriting Is Still Essential in the Keyboard Age

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Credit Anna Parini

Do children in a keyboard world need to learn old-fashioned handwriting?

There is a tendency to dismiss handwriting as a nonessential skill, even though researchers have warned that learning to write may be the key to, well, learning to write.

And beyond the emotional connection adults may feel to the way we learned to write, there is a growing body of research on what the normally developing brain learns by forming letters on the page, in printed or manuscript format as well as in cursive. In an article this year in The Journal of Learning Disabilities, researchers looked at how oral and written language related to attention and what are called “executive function” skills (like planning) in children in grades four through nine, both with and without learning disabilities. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington and the lead author on the study, told me that evidence from this and other studies suggests that “handwriting — forming letters — engages the mind, and that can help children pay attention to written language.”

Last year in an article in The Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, Laura Dinehart, an associate professor of early childhood education at Florida International University, discussed several possible associations between good handwriting and academic achievement: Children with good handwriting may get better grades because their work is more pleasant for teachers to read; children who struggle with writing may find that too much of their attention is consumed by producing the letters, and the content suffers.

But can we actually stimulate children’s brains by helping them form letters with their hands? In a population of low-income children, Dr. Dinehart said, the ones who had good early fine-motor writing skills in prekindergarten did better later on in school. She called for more research on handwriting in the preschool years, and on ways to help young children develop the skills they need for “a complex task” that requires the coordination of cognitive, motor and neuromuscular processes.

“This myth that handwriting is just a motor skill is just plain wrong,” Dr. Berninger said. “We use motor parts of our brain, motor planning, motor control, but what’s very critical is a region of our brain where the visual and language come together, the fusiform gyrus, where visual stimuli actually become letters and written words.” You have to see letters in “the mind’s eye” in order to produce them on the page, she said. Brain imaging shows that the activation of this region is different in children who are having trouble with handwriting.

Functional brain scans of adults show a characteristic brain network that is activated when they read, and it includes areas that relate to motor processes. This suggested to scientists that the cognitive process of reading may be connected to the motor process of forming letters.

Karin James, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, did brain scans on children who did not yet know how to print. “Their brains don’t distinguish letters; they respond to letters the same as to a triangle,” she said.

After the children were taught to print, patterns of brain activation in response to letters showed increased activation of that reading network, including the fusiform gyrus, along with the inferior frontal gyrus and posterior parietal regions of the brain, which adults use for processing written language — even though the children were still at a very early level as writers.

“The letters they produce themselves are very messy and variable, and that’s actually good for how children learn things,” Dr. James said. “That seems to be one big benefit of handwriting.”

Handwriting experts have struggled with the question of whether cursive writing confers special skills and benefits, beyond the benefits that print writing might provide. Dr. Berninger cited a 2015 study that suggested that starting around fourth grade, cursive skills conferred advantages in both spelling and composing, perhaps because the connecting strokes helped children connect letters into words.

For typically developing young children, typing the letters doesn’t seem to generate the same brain activation. As we grow up, of course, most of us transition to keyboard writing, though like many who teach college students, I have struggled with the question of laptops in class, more because I worry about students’ attention wandering than to promote handwriting. Still, studies on note taking have suggested that “college students who are writing on a keyboard are less likely to remember and do well on the content than if writing it by hand,” Dr. Dinehart said.

Dr. Berninger said the research suggests that children need introductory training in printing, then two years of learning and practicing cursive, starting in grade three, and then some systematic attention to touch-typing.

Using a keyboard, and especially learning the positions of the letters without looking at the keys, she said, might well take advantage of the fibers that cross-communicate in the brain, since unlike with handwriting, children will use both hands to type. “What we’re advocating is teaching children to be hybrid writers,” said Dr. Berninger, “manuscript first for reading — it transfers to better word recognition — then cursive for spelling and for composing. Then, starting in late elementary school, touch-typing.”

As a pediatrician, I think this may be another case where we should be careful that the lure of the digital world doesn’t take away significant experiences that can have real impacts on children’s rapidly developing brains. Mastering handwriting, messy letters and all, is a way of making written language your own, in some profound ways.

“My overarching research focuses on how learning and interacting with the world with our hands has a really significant effect on our cognition,” Dr. James said, “on how writing by hand changes brain function and can change brain development.”

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Where Listening Is the New Lecture

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Credit iStock

Mara was one of my best students; she was reliable, dedicated and truly loved to learn. One day, at the end of seventh grade, she informed me she’d be dropping my Latin class for her eighth grade year so she could have an additional study hall, time she needed to finish her other school work and participate in extracurricular activities. I signed off on her request, but I also sensed that the explanation she gave was not the whole story. Weeks later, she asked to meet with me and, voice shaking, admitted she had dropped my class because she did not feel as if her time was being well spent because she was not learning much.

As she laid my failings bare, my mouth opened, defense at the ready. When I began to speak, however, she looked me in the eyes and thanked me for listening to her.

That’s when I shut my mouth and realized I had not been listening to her at all, not for the entire year she’d been in my classroom.

If I had been listening every day, instead of just this once, her confession would not have been news. If I’d been using strategies focused on her learning, rather than my teaching – heck, if I’d just asked, I would have known she wasn’t learning.

I write about education through the lens of my own teaching, so many of my most grievous errors are Google-able, available for public consumption for as long as the internet shall live. Horrifying on a personal level, yes, but I believe teaching mistakes laid bare are a good thing for education at large.

Anyone who has managed to stick it out in the classroom for more than a year has committed serious errors. Teachers lecture, even when evidence shows lecturing isn’t effective teaching. Teachers favor certain students over others based on race, behavior or personality, even when research reveals that supportive and positive teacher-student relationships form the foundation of learning and school engagement, especially for students at increased risk of educational failure.

Letter grades, sexist dress codes, homework, institutional racism and high-stakes summative tests have stood as America’s educational status quo for hundreds of years, but handing these artifacts down to the next generation without questioning their propriety or utility is, put bluntly, bad teaching.

I, like many other teachers, have also swung too far, too fast, in my yearning for magic, silver bullets. Because I like to poke the sacred cows lazing around my classroom, I adore reading education clickbait, articles that trumpet the exciting promise of new findings. When a study emerged in 2014 on the deleterious impact of excessive classroom decorations on kindergarten learning, for example, I was tempted to purge my classroom of my carefully curated yet distracting maps, poems and student art. Fortunately, I’ve learned to stop, take a breath and consider whether the finding at hand was simply interesting (this one was) or something tried, tested, ready to be deployed with all deliberate speed in classrooms across the country (it was not).

A willingness to embrace new methods is admirable, particularly when current ones are not working, but education is a big ship to turn around, particularly when it is moving full steam ahead in the wrong direction.

Despite American education’s failures, missteps, errors of judgment and blunders of best intentions, I remain optimistic about where we are headed, both as a profession and as a nation. No, I’m not naïve; I started teaching 18 years ago and have committed or witnessed many of these blunders firsthand. Rather, I remain optimistic because I’ve also spent three years on the road meeting teachers, school counselors, administrators and school board members, and I know how much they care about their students.

Education may seem adrift right now, what with deeply entrenched debate over national versus local control of standards, the utility and fairness of standardized assessments and the economic and social worth of teachers. But at the center of much of this conflict, we all have the same focus: the students.

I believe our shared compass bearing will help us get this ship pointed in the right direction, toward a place where learning trumps expedience, knowledge confers power and listening is the new lecture.

Jessica Lahey is an educator, writer and speaker and the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.”


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Using Meditation to Help Close the Achievement Gap

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Students meditating at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in San Francisco.

Students meditating at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in San Francisco.Credit

Closing the so-called achievement gap between poor inner-city children and their more affluent suburban counterparts is among the biggest challenges for education reformers. The success of some schools’ efforts suggests that meditation might significantly improve children’s school performance – and help close that gap.

In 2007, James Dierke, then the principal of the Visitacion Valley Middle School in a troubled neighborhood in San Francisco, was determined to improve both the quality of education and student behavior in his school. He adopted a system called the Quiet Time Program, developed by the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. The program, implemented in partnership with the nonprofit Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education, involved introducing two 15-minute periods of quiet into the school day. During those times students could either practice Transcendental Meditation, which is taught as part of the program, or engage in other quiet activities like silent reading.

A major factor preventing underserved children from learning is the stress they encounter on a daily basis – from factors like poverty, deprivation, lack of steady parental input, physical danger and constant fear. Research shows that chronic stress can impair healthy brain development and the ability to learn, and that Transcendental Meditation, a stress-reducing technique that involves thinking of a mantra, can reduce stress and its manifestations – for example, anxiety, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Mr. Dierke wondered whether meditation might reduce students’ stress levels and help them learn.

Over the next three years, Visitacion Valley’s suspensions dropped by 79 percent, attendance rose to 98 percent, and students’ grade point averages rose each year. Of even greater interest, the increase in G.P.A. for the lowest performing demographic was double that for the overall student group.

Anecdotally, favorable feedback poured in from both students and staff members. One seventh grader at Visitacion Valley said, “I used to be really fidgety, couldn’t stay in my seat for very long. Now, after meditating, I can sit down for a whole class without standing up.” Barry O’Driscoll, the school’s director of physical education for the past 14 years, said, “In the first seven years of my tenure, the school was dominated by stress and fighting.” But in the last few years, he said, “we have had very few fights.”

One other middle school and two high schools in the Bay Area adopted the program. And a 2015 review of the program, issued by the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education in collaboration with the San Francisco Unified School District research department, had more good news.

The results of 17 studies conducted to date in the Bay Area, varying in duration from three months to one year, showed benefits across parameters including reduced stress, increased emotional intelligence, reduced suspensions, increased attendance and increased academic performance.

Although controlled studies are difficult to perform in an academic setting, collectively the results of the Bay Area studies are encouraging. Two controlled studies have been published so far; others are in submission for publication. In one, the effects of the Quiet Time Program, conducted over half the academic year, were evaluated in public middle school students performing below proficiency level. Annual math and English scores improved in the students who meditated, while they declined in those who didn’t meditate. Given that the students in the study were performing below par at baseline, these results are promising.

The second controlled study, authored by WestEd, an independent evaluator, found that after seven months of the Quiet Time Program, ninth grade students who meditated showed a significant decrease in anxiety and a significant increase in resilience compared to nonmeditating students. In addition, meditating students reported sleeping better as well as higher levels of self-confidence and happiness.

It would be naïve to think that meditation alone could erase the effects of the many factors, like poverty, that are barriers to educational achievement. But Quiet Time is a relatively inexpensive intervention that teachers and students enjoy and which preliminary data suggest is effective.

And although this program has focused on schools in low-income areas, adolescents from middle-class and affluent families could benefit from stress reduction as well. Why shouldn’t all our students have access to meditation?

Norman E. Rosenthal is a psychiatrist and the author of “Super Mind: How to Boost Performance and Live a Richer and Happier Life Through Transcendental Meditation.”

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The New Performance Enhancer in High School Sports? Nutrition

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Jordan Burg, 18, learned to make smart food choices for sports through a nutrition program at his school.

Jordan Burg, 18, learned to make smart food choices for sports through a nutrition program at his school.Credit Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Jordan Burg, 18, who plays varsity football and baseball and runs track, never used to think about what he was eating. But after he learned at school that nutrition was as important to his athletic performance as attending practice, he changed his diet.

Before, “I figured that I worked out so hard, it didn’t matter,” he said. “I ate ice cream whenever I pleased, cheese on everything and soda every day.” Now, he said, “I find myself at the salad bar having grilled chicken salads,” and on game days “I eat chicken breast and fish, and I make sure I drink as much water as possible.” He also avoids processed foods and red meat.

Jordan, a senior at the Windward School in Los Angeles, a private co-ed school for grades 7-12, said, “I am experiencing far fewer muscle cramps as well as less muscle fatigue.”

He credits this change to Windward’s heavy focus on nutrition as part of its athletic program, something that appears to be a new trend in high schools, said Molly Wong Vega, a dietitian who provides her services to three public school districts in the greater Houston area. Long a standard part of professional and college programs, the emphasis on diet is shifting to the high school level.

“Schools are starting to bring in dietitians to discuss the importance of nutrition with young athletes to complete the circle,” Ms. Wong Vega said. “Suggesting a snack of bell peppers with hummus may be a way to help increase vitamin A and C intake and give a little zinc as well,” which she says can help with muscle and tissue repair.

Ms. Wong Vega said public school districts often have tighter budgets than private schools, making it harder to hire specialists in sports nutrition. She is not employed directly by the schools but works with their athletic trainers through the Houston Methodist System, a network of hospitals. She said it took her and another dietitian a full semester to talk to all the coaching staff members and 900 athletes at just one high school.

The Chandler Unified School District in Arizona, a public district in the suburbs of Phoenix, has three dietitians on staff. One is Wesley Delbridge, also a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a trade group representing some 75,000 registered dietitians and other nutrition professionals.

“By hiring a dietitian, districts receive that extra skill set that can improve their meals and increase health,” said Mr. Delbridge, a registered dietitian who directs the district’s food and nutrition department. “I have been advocating for school nutrition departments and food service departments to hire dietitians for some time, and I’m happy to see more and more schools incorporate nutrition not only into their athletic programs but into its core programs.”

Mr. Delbridge and his team developed “peak performance packs,” boxes of food that students in the district’s high schools can buy in the cafeteria for $5. There are three choices: endurance, muscle building and rapid recovery packs, each aimed at giving student athletes solid nutritional choices for their sport.

The endurance pack, for example — for sports like soccer, cross country, track and wrestling – contains whole-grain pasta salad, fresh fruit, string cheese, vegetables, hummus and a beverage high in electrolytes, intended to help prevent cramping and muscle fatigue. The muscle-building pack contains foods that are high in lean protein, both plant- and animal-based, to encourage muscles to repair and build up again.

Sports nutritionists concede that getting kids to eat healthfully remains a struggle.

“We don’t say ‘don’t eat this, don’t eat that,’” said Kermit Cannon, who heads the Windward School’s program to incorporate healthy eating into its curriculum. “We emphasize that good nutrition, along with sleep and exercise, will not only benefit you as a student athlete, but those habits will benefit you for a lifetime.”

Tackling eating disorders is also often part of the nutrition programs, with some dietitians providing one-on-one sessions with students. Mr. Delbridge is sometimes asked by a coach or a counselor to talk with student athletes who have eating disorders, and their parents.

“We would discuss their current weight, exercise activity and intensity, and I would show them what the final amount of calories they need in a day to maintain that activity level,” Mr. Delbridge said. “This can sometimes shock the student, because it seems like a lot of calories. Then we discuss how to meet these needs with healthy choices.”

Roberta Anding, a sports dietitian at the Kinkaid School, a private school in Houston for pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, said both boys and girls can struggle with body image. “How we provide these young men and women the life skills to navigate food choices, a college cafeteria, see how alcohol plays a negative role in your performance, how to recover properly — that’s truly focusing in on wellness for life.”

Robert Bach, the principal of Stillwater Area High School in Minnesota, said for several years now, students have had access to individual sessions with a nutritionist to help them make smart food choices. “It’s about lifelong health so that our students can lead a healthy lifestyle they carry beyond their classes,” he said.

Sela Kay, a sophomore at the Windward School, said that learning about nutrition at school has made it easier for her to make healthier food choices.

“Even after I am done with organized sports someday, I want to continue leading this healthy lifestyle,” said Sela, 16, who plays varsity basketball and runs track. “I know now that will start with my food choices.”

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The Mindful Child

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Credit Sam Kalda

It’s long been known that meditation helps children feel calmer, but new research is helping quantify its benefits for elementary school-age children. A 2015 study found that fourth- and fifth-grade students who participated in a four-month meditation program showed improvements in executive functions like cognitive control, working memory, cognitive flexibility — and better math grades. A study published recently in the journal Mindfulness found similar improvements in mathematics in fifth graders with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And a study of elementary school children in Korea showed that eight weeks of meditation lowered aggression, social anxiety and stress levels.

These investigations, along with a review published in March that combed the developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience literature, illustrate how meditative practices have the potential to actually change the structure and function of the brain in ways that foster academic success.

Fundamental principles of neuroscience suggest that meditation can have its greatest impact on cognition when the brain is in its earliest stages of development.

This is because the brain develops connections in prefrontal circuits at its fastest rate in childhood. It is this extra plasticity that creates the potential for meditation to have greater impact on executive functioning in children. Although meditation may benefit adults more in terms of stress reduction or physical rejuvenation, its lasting effects on things like sustained attention and cognitive control are significant but ultimately less robust.

clinical study published in 2011 in The Journal of Child and Family Studies demonstrates this concept superbly. The research design allowed adults and children to be compared directly since they were enrolled in the same mindfulness meditation program and assessed identically. Children between 8 and 12 who had A.D.H.D. diagnoses, along with parents, were enrolled in an eight-week mindfulness-training program. The results showed that mindfulness meditation significantly improved attention and impulse control in both groups, but the improvements were considerably more robust in the children.

Outside of the lab, many parents report on the benefits of early meditation. Heather Maura of Vienna, Va., who was trained in transcendental meditation, leads her 9-year-old daughter Daisy through various visualization techniques and focused breathing exercises three nights a week, and says her daughter has become noticeably better at self-regulating her emotions, a sign of improved cognitive control. “When Daisy is upset, she will sit herself down and concentrate on her breathing until she is refocused,” Ms. Maura said.

Amanda Simmons, a mother who runs her own meditation studio in Los Angeles, has seen similar improvements in her 11-year-old son, Jacob, who is on the autism spectrum. Jacob also has A.D.H.D. and bipolar disorder, but Ms. Simmons said many of his symptoms have diminished since he began daily meditation and mantra chants six months ago. “The meditation seems to act like a ‘hard reboot’ for his brain, almost instantly resolving mood swings or lessening anger,” Ms. Simmons said. She believes it has enabled him to take a lower dose of Risperdal, an antipsychotic drug used to treat bipolar disorder.

Whether children are on medication or not, meditation can help instill self-control and an ability to focus. Perhaps encouraging meditation and mind-body practices will come to be recognized as being as essential to smart parenting as teaching your child to work hard, eat healthfully and exercise regularly.

Learn some meditation techniques you can teach your child, read Three Ways for Children to Try Meditation at Home

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To Help Students Learn, Engage the Emotions

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Before she became a neuroscientist, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang was a seventh-grade science teacher at a school outside Boston. One year, during a period of significant racial and ethnic tension at the school, she struggled to engage her students in a unit on human evolution. After days of apathy and outright resistance to Ms. Immordino-Yang’s teaching, a student finally asked the question that altered her teaching — and her career path — forever: “Why are early hominids always shown with dark skin?”

With that question, one that connected the abstract concepts of human evolution and the very concrete, personal experiences of racial tension in the school, her students’ resistance gave way to interest. As she explained the connection between the effects of equatorial sunlight, melanin and skin color and went on to explain how evolutionary change and geography result in various human characteristics, interest blossomed into engagement, and something magical happened: Her students began to learn.

Dr. Immordino-Yang’s eyes light up as she recounts this story in her office at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. Now an associate professor of education, psychology and neuroscience, she understands the reason behind her students’ shift from apathy to engagement and, finally, to deep, meaningful learning.

Her students learned because they became emotionally engaged in material that had personal relevance to them.

Emotion is essential to learning, Dr. Immordino-Yang said, and should not be underestimated or misunderstood as a trend, or as merely the “E” in “SEL,” or social-emotional learning. Emotion is where learning begins, or, as is often the case, where it ends. Put simply, “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about,” she said.

This rule holds true even across subjects and disciplines, Dr. Immordino-Yang writes in her book, “Emotions, Learning, and the Brain.” “Even in academic subjects that are traditionally considered unemotional, such as physics, engineering or math, deep understanding depends on making emotional connections between concepts.”

As a teacher, I know what an emotionally engaged student looks like on the outside, but Dr. Immordino-Yang showed me what that student looks like on the inside using a functional M.R.I., a scanner that reveals brain function in real time.

“When students are emotionally engaged,” she said, “we see activations all around the cortex, in regions involved in cognition, memory and meaning-making, and even all the way down into the brain stem.”

As she went on to explain why emotion is vital to high-quality learning, Ms. Immordino-Yang’s cheeks flushed pink, her eyes brightened, and her hands became animated and expressive. While she’d provided me with pages of quotes, studies and images meant to illustrate all she wanted to teach me during those two hours in her office, her enthusiasm for the topic served as the most powerful exhibit.

Great teachers understand that the best, most durable learning happens when content sparks interest, when it is relevant to a child’s life, and when the students form an emotional bond with either the subject at hand or the teacher in front of them. Meaningful learning happens when teachers are able to create an emotional connection to what might otherwise remain abstract concepts, ideas or skills.

Creating this emotional connection might sound like a daunting task, but research has shown that the investment reaps huge dividends in the form of increased learning and better grades. When teachers take the time to learn about their students’ likes, dislikes and personal interests, whether it’s racial issues brewing at their school, their after-school job, or their dreams and goals, learning improves.

I experienced this a few years ago, with a parent who asked me how to get her daughter interested in school. The girl dreamed of becoming a dairy farmer like her father and grandfather, and felt that her classes were irrelevant.

And yet, given a few moments to think and some creativity, we both realized that dairy farming is a perfect laboratory for everything from biology to math, chemistry to geometry, history to government; all of these subjects are relevant and important in the life of a dairy farmer. When the catalog for I.V.F.-ready bull semen arrives in the mail, she’ll need to know about dominant and recessive genetic traits. She’ll need to understand soil chemistry, microbiology, botany, the geometry of herd rotation as it relates to land use, and the political and financial realities of keeping dairy farming viable as an industry.

The emotional connection that can result when teachers make learning personally relevant to students is what differentiates superficial, rote, topical assimilation of material from a superlative education marked by deep mastery and durable learning. While there are no silver bullets in education, emotional engagement and personal relevance is the tool that has the potential to improve the educational experience of every child, in every school in America.


Jessica Lahey is an educator, writer and speaker and the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.”

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Raising a Child With Grit Can Mean Letting Her Quit

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Angela Duckworth

Angela DuckworthCredit

The rule at the “grit” expert Angela Duckworth’s house? You can quit. But you can’t quit on a hard day.

Few parents who pick up Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” will be thinking about raising a quitter.

But Dr. Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has some unexpected advice.

“Quitting is essential, especially when you’re young,” said Dr. Duckworth, who was named a MacArthur “genius” in 2013 for her development of the concept of “grit”— the combination of determination and direction that drives some people to constantly work, improve and achieve. “It’s counterintuitive, especially for parents looking for an affirmation that discipline and hard work are what matters — but interests come first.”

Very young kids, she says, should be allowed to explore, even if that means abandoning projects and even practices.

The reason it’s sometimes all right to let a child quit, Dr. Duckworth said, is that the predecessor to developing grit is the kind of play that leads to passion. Parents shouldn’t be discouraged by those early starts and stops. “Kids don’t work hard on things they don’t care about,” she says.

As children grow older, seeing things through becomes more important.

“A child in elementary school should be able to stick with things for more than a few weeks,” she said. A middle-school-age child should be able to do a full year or season, and once a child is in high school, research suggests that spending more than a year or a single season on an activity is important. “It’s important to experience what it’s like to come back,” she said, and to see how you improve with experience and how things change as coaches or advisers change.

Still, even for an older child, there are times when quitting is the right choice. Another season of a sport comes at a cost: less time to try something new. There are also times when that urge to quit comes from frustration or fear, or even a sort of inertia. The mother of the world-record-holding sprinter Usain Bolt probably doesn’t regret pulling him away from video games to insist that he go to track practice.

So how does a parent know when to demand that a child keep going, and when to support a decision to stop?

In Dr. Duckworth’s house, there’s a rule, she said. “You can’t quit on a hard day.” You play in the rain, you return to class after a scolding from a teacher, you pick up the instrument again until that hard passage has become easy.

“Parents know what a kid doesn’t know,” Dr. Duckworth said. “For a kid, it’s irrational to keep going when they’re discouraged. Parents know that everyone feels that way.”

Dr. Duckworth is quick to note that her book is not a parenting manual. It’s an exploration of the sometimes surprising ways hard work, passion and perseverance matter more than talent, a reminder that what observers sometimes see as the overnight success of the incredibly gifted, particularly in the realm of athletics, is really the product of drive as well as ability, and a discussion of how all of us — not just children — can grow our “grit” throughout our lives.

Instilling grit in your child requires a combination of being demanding and supportive, said Dr. Duckworth. “You need to push your kids a little bit, but they also need to know that they’re supported.”

Second, parents need to “model” grit. Talk about the challenges you face now, or have faced in the past, and how you persisted. Tell family stories about the ways your clan just doesn’t quit.

And never discount the importance of fun. Children should be allowed to try the things they gravitate toward, and those sometimes don’t appear until a child has had time to explore and understand what makes him or her happy. Dr. Duckworth tells the story of a talented young swimmer explaining why he wanted to switch to rowing — he “really wanted to be outside.”

There’s a process, she said, of “learning what rings your bell.”

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Gap Year May Have Benefits Long After College

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Not every child who gets into college is ready to go. For some, taking a “gap year” — deferring admission for a year after high school graduation — may prove invaluable, helping a child thrive in college and after graduation as well. That’s among the messages in Jeffrey J. Selingo’s newest book, “There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow.”

Many colleges now endorse the gap year, including Harvard, which “encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work or spend time in another meaningful way.” Students who take time off tend to do better academically and are more likely to be satisfied with their choices after graduation, and we’ve written about how students who take time off may be able to make better choices about things like alcohol and sex and have a better understanding of what they want from college. As Lisa Damour, who writes a column on adolescents for Well Family, puts it, “teenage years are like dog years: a year of maturation at age 18 is worth at least seven in later life.”

But parents often remain dubious about the gap year, worried that their student, once off education’s main highway, will never attend college at all. High school guidance counselors, who may be judged by the number of seniors who attend college rather than the number who graduate, don’t always support the idea, either. And funding a gap year can feel like a barrier for many families — some programs can cost the equivalent of a year’s tuition. Those that don’t can be as challenging to get into as college itself. City Year, for example, which receives funding from AmeriCorps and which pays students to tutor in schools around the country, selects 2,700 students from among 13,000 applicants.

Mr. Selingo, a professor at the University of Arizona and a former top editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, says parents should let go of their fears. In his book, he explores what happens to our children after they graduate from college – and why it doesn’t look much like the journey we ourselves took a generation or so ago. A lot has changed, he says, and those changes make a gap year more valuable than ever.

“It used to be that if you could get into college and graduate, you were essentially golden,” Mr. Selingo said. Once a child was admitted to college, “parents could breathe a giant sigh of relief and essentially say, as long as you graduate, you’re O.K.”

That’s no longer true, he says. “College has changed. Recruiting has changed. The economy has changed.” Some students may sprint straight toward traditional success, while others wander along the way or appear to straggle behind. For parents of adult children in those last groups, helping them to find the time and space to mature into the life they want is critical. A gap year is one of the many options he describes for helping students form their own understanding of why they’re going to college, and what they want once they get there.

“We shouldn’t rush this transition,” Mr. Selingo said. “We are rushing too many kids off to college who aren’t ready or don’t know why they’re there.”

It’s important, Mr. Selingo noted, that the gap year itself be meaningful. “Students who delay college to work odd jobs for a while to try to ‘find themselves’ don’t do as well as everyone else when they get to college,” he writes. “They get lower grades, and there’s a greater chance they will drop out.” A gap year needs to provide either “meaningful work experience, academic preparation for college, or travel that opens up the horizon to the rest of the world.” It’s also important that a student has a plan for closing the gap — Mr. Selingo, like many others, recommends that students apply for and accept a place in college before starting a gap year.

To increase their investment in the gap year experience, some students can find meaningful work experience, perhaps working as a nanny or as a language instructor overseas. Others might work those odd jobs with the goal of funding, or partially funding, a paid gap experience. Even if parents end up footing all or most of the bill, though, Mr. Selingo argues that it’s worth it. At most public universities, fewer than 20 percent of students graduate in four years. Many students take six years to finish a degree, or never finish at all. An investment in a gap year, he writes, “might be money saved later if students are more directed when they eventually go to college.”

Above all, parents and students should think of a gap year not as a break in an education, but as a part of it. “We need to remember that lifelong education is no longer rhetoric, but reality,” said Mr. Selingo. “We still think of an education as this thing you get, at this one place, once in your life,” he said. “That’s not the way it works anymore.”

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School Athletes Often Lack Adequate Protection

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Credit Paul Rogers

With all the attention on national rules to prevent and properly treat injuries to professional and college athletes, it may surprise you to learn that there are no nationwide guidelines to protect high school athletes from crippling or fatal injuries.

Instead, it is up to individual states and the schools within them to adopt policies and practices that help to assure the safety of children who play organized school or league sports. But most states and schools have yet to enact needed safety measures, according to data from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association.

“Each state has its own high school athletic association, and each policy has to be individually approved,” said Douglas Casa, an athletic trainer and chief executive of the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute, named for the former National Football League player who died from complications related to heatstroke in 2001.

“It’s a burdensome, grueling process,” Dr. Casa said, that he and others hope will yield to the efforts of a new program, the Collaborative Solutions for Safety in Sport created by the athletic trainers’ association and theAmerican Medical Society for Sports Medicine.

The program held its second meeting last month, attended by two high school representatives from each state, to provide them with road maps to establish safety rules and policies or laws for high school athletics.

Last year alone, about 50 high school athletes died, according to the association, and thousands suffered long-term complications from sports-related injuries, most of which could have been avoided had well-established safety practices been in place and observed.

The leading causes of sports-related deaths among high school students are sudden cardiac arrest, head and neck injuries, and exertion-induced heatstroke or sickling, which occurs in athletes who carry the sickle cell trait. Fatalities occur primarily because most schools lack four critical ingredients to assure sports safety: emergency action plans, policies for proper conditioning and safe exercise in high heat and humidity, the presence of trained health professionals at all practices and games, and immediate availability of automated external defibrillators, or A.E.D.s, to reset a stilled or erratically beating heart.

In July 2004, Laura Friend of Fort Worth, lost her 12-year-old daughter Sarah during a junior lifeguarding class because nobody recognized the child was in cardiac arrest and no one initiated CPR or used the A.E.D. on the premises. Not until after Sarah died was it known that she had been born with an enlarged heart.

Ms. Friend, who now coordinates a Texas cardiac emergency project, created a nonprofit foundation in her daughter’s memory that has donated 59 A.E.D.s and provided CPR and A.E.D. training for hundreds of youth and adults in Texas.

However, despite a 2007 law requiring an A.E.D. in every school in Texas, “many are locked up in an office and not accessible, or only the school nurse knows how to use it,” Ms. Friend said.

Knowing that sudden cardiac arrest is by far the leading cause of death among student- athletes, Dr. Casa owns an A.E.D. and takes it to every practice and game of soccer, lacrosse and swimming involving his three school-age children.

The Mallon family of Del Mar, Calif., knows all too well the importance of having a medically trained professional on hand during practices and games. Tommy Mallon owes his life and well-being to an athletic trainer and a quick-thinking teammate who refused to help him up when he landed hard after colliding with another lacrosse player when he was 17. Instead, a trainer was summoned who, noticing subtle neurological signs that suggested a catastrophic, potentially fatal injury, called immediately for an ambulance.

Tommy, 23, now a global risk analyst in Austin, Tex., had sustained a fractured vertebra in his neck and torn artery to the brain. Had he been moved incorrectly, he could have died or been paralyzed.

In the years since, Tommy’s mother, Beth Mallon, has been a relentless advocate for teaching athletes how to recognize basic signs and symptoms of trouble on the field or court. Some 5,000 students have already been through the program she developed, Athletes Saving Athletes, taught by athletic trainers.

“In just two hours, the kids learn all they need to know: This could be serious, when and how to get help,” Ms. Mallon said. “We’ve had three success stories so far: one involving a heatstroke, one with cardiac arrest and a third with a neck injury and concussion.”

“High schools spend tons of money on referees, but almost nothing on safety,” she said. “I’d like to see every high school in the country adopt a sports safety curriculum. You never think a catastrophic injury will happen to your kid, but if it does, you’d be so grateful that someone is there who knows what to do.”

Dr. Jonathan Drezner, director of the Center for Sports Cardiology at the University of Washington, outlined the key practices the collaborative project is trying to get every high school that sponsors athletic activities to adopt:

■ An athletic trainer at every practice and game;

■ An emergency action plan to respond appropriately to an athlete in distress;

■ A publicly accessible A.E.D. and school-based program in its use;

■ Climatization policies to prevent heat injury and heatstroke.

Although having a medically trained person readily available can be too costly for many schools, an A.E.D. costs only about $1,000 and can be used to save anyone — coaches, refs and spectators as well as athletes.

“I can’t believe we don’t have universal access to A.E.D.s in schools; they should be like fire extinguishers,” Dr. Drezner said. “There are 7.5 million high school athletes in this country. During the academic school year 2014-2015, there were 55 cases of cardiac arrest among them, and 57 percent died.”

Parents whose children want to play school sports often focus more on uniforms than on measures to protect them from serious or fatal injuries. Experts say that a pre-participation medical exam is critical and should include an EKG if there is any family history of heart trouble.

Coaches should know CPR, the location and use of an A.E.D., the signs of a possible concussion, and when to keep a player on the sidelines. Coaches should also monitor climate conditions and know when to postpone or suspend a practice or competitive event to avoid heat injuries. During hot weather and high humidity, a cooling tub should always be available. If school money is tight, parents might hold a fund-raiser to assure that an athletic trainer or sports medicine doctor attends every practice and game.

Related:

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3 Things School Counselors Want You to Know About Their Jobs

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Credit Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times

Over the years, this column has offered up “3 Things Students Wish Teachers Knew,” “3 Things Parents Wish Teachers Knew,” and “5 Things Teachers Wish Parents Knew.” Recently, it was called to my attention that I have never written about what school counselors might like readers to know about their profession.

I’ve spent a great deal of time this year meeting and talking with school counselors, and I can attest that they have a lot of wisdom to share about how to keep students healthy, happy and successful.

School counselors manage the intersection of multiple, disparate priorities: students’ academic performance and their mental health, parents’ dreams for their kids and teachers’ requirements for their students, decisions about the present and plans for the future. As challenging as this task is, daily life in this intersection is also increasingly demanding. According to the recommendation of the American School Counselor Association, the student-to-counselor ratio should go no higher than 250 to 1. According to the latest data, however, all but three states, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming, exceed the recommended ratio. Nationally, the average student-to-school-counselor ratio is 491 to 1, but the ratio hits a high of 941 to 1 in Arizona.

The view from this intersection may be chaotic and crowded, but because counselors are concerned with the mental, emotional and physical health of students, it also affords counselors a glimpse of the whole child, one that teachers, parents and administrators can’t often discern from their more limited viewpoints. I asked three of these professionals to describe their work and share their unique perspective on what students need in order to succeed.

First, Phyllis Fagell, a licensed clinical professional counselor and school counselor in Bethesda, Md., told me: Don’t call them “guidance counselors.” The proper title is “school counselor,” she explained in an email. “School counselors chafe at the outdated term ‘guidance counselor,’ a relic from the past that no longer reflects our role,” she wrote. The profession was vocationally oriented and counselors had inconsistent educational backgrounds and levels of certification until the Association of School Counselors of America published “The ASCA National Model: A Foundation for School Counseling Programs” in 2003 in an effort to standardize the field.

“Today’s school counselors have master’s degrees. We use evidence-based practices and maintain data to ensure accountability; we work with teachers, parents and other community members to support our students,” wrote Ms. Fagell.

School counselors manage many roles, but the one role they do not own is that of disciplinarian. Students need to be able to confide in counselors without worry that they will be punished, Ms. Fagell explained. “The divide between administration and counseling is incredibly important to understand and maintain if students are going to trust us to act in their best interests.”

Those best interests, Brian Turcotte, a social worker and school counselor in Barrington, Ill., wrote in an email, are not always the same as the goals parents have for their children. When I asked Mr. Turcotte for his best school counselor advice to parents, he wrote,

We cannot make our kids live the life we wish we had lived. Parents’ aspirations and dreams for their children may not be the aspirations or dreams children have for themselves. It’s fine to try to encourage or inspire children to consider a future beyond what they see for themselves, but ultimately, every person needs to be in charge of his or her own life.

Kelly Wickham Hurst, counselor at Lincoln Magnet School in Springfield, Ill., said in a phone interview that she believes parents and teachers need to do a little less telling, a lot more listening and forgive children when they mess up.

Ms. Wickham Hurst said she left classroom teaching to become a school counselor because she felt she had an opportunity to multiply her influence for her students. She is black and said she thought she had particular impact among minority students. “Often, when a kid arrives in my office sad or angry about how he is being treated, my job is to give him back his humanity. I tell him that what he is feeling is normal,” and that he may be being treated differently than his white classmates. “I listen, help him manage his emotions and teach him how to move through the world we live in today, even when it’s not fair.”

“We have to forgive children when they get in trouble,” she added. “The most powerful relationships I have with kids develop when I forgive them, and validate their feelings. Kids need the respect and the space to be human.”

Finally, Ms. Fagell emphasized the role school counselors play in teaching “soft skills,” like negotiation, compromise and planning. “School counselors care deeply about educating children to be whole, happy people with the social-emotional skills needed to navigate life. It’s not enough to be good at math or history. Students need to be problem solvers and innovators. They need to be able to work in teams, to manage change, to take risks and to lead.”

Children learn these skills best when teachers, counselors and parents work cooperatively. Ms. Fagell concluded her email to me with this very sentiment. “When parents openly share their child’s stories and struggles, counselors can be effective advocates, helping build teachers’ empathy and desire to engage in problem solving with the student and her family.”

School counselors may be overburdened and misunderstood, but for most, there’s nowhere else they’d rather be.

“These are my people, my tribe,” Ms. Wickham Hurst said. “I get to work in the magic that is middle school.”


Jessica Lahey is an educator, writer and speaker and the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.”

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‘Impossible’ Homework Assignment? Let Your Child Do It

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Credit Getty Images

I really didn’t think my two fourth graders could complete their homework assignment on their own: Prepare a five-minute-long speech from a biography, to be delivered, not read, from notes on index cards, in costume and in character and with at least one prop. An impossible task for a 10-year-old, I thought, as I braced for the battle that would surely be involved in dragging them both through the project.

But life intervened. I had to travel for work and take care of issues involving their older brother and sister. My husband was tied up as well. We offered a little redirection to one child early on, a little last-minute glue-gun assistance to the other, and a whole lot of soothing and apologies throughout to two children who didn’t think they could do it on their own, either.

But we were all wrong. They did fine.

“I hear this time and time again from parents,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and the author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.” “It’s daring to step back and actually understand what your kids can do without your being present,” she said, especially when the children are clamoring for you to step in instead.

My soothing messages were fine, she said, but my apologies for being unavailable were unnecessary. “Take an interest,” she said, when they ask for help. “You can help them interpret instructions, you can help them procure materials, but when they’re turning to you and saying, ‘I can’t, I don’t know,’ you have to say, ‘Yes you can. This is the homework assigned, your teacher thinks you can do it, and I do too.’”

“You’re looking for evidence that while it’s out of their comfort zone, it’s not completely out of their capacity zone,” said Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist and the author, most recently, of “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success.” If you, as a parent, catch yourself classifying an assignment as impossible rather than challenging, and getting ready to don your superhero cape and leap in, “break it down into chunks,” Dr. Levine said.

Has the child done anything like this before? A child who can read and write reasonably successfully, she said, is probably ready for the next step of a book report; a child who has written book reports, as mine have, is probably ready to add the speaking component.

“It does mean tolerating not only your own anxiety, but your kid’s anxiety,” she said. Putting all of those skills together was just enough outside of what she called my children’s “safe zone” to make us all nervous, but it was exactly that challenge that their fourth-grade teacher felt they were ready to meet.

It would have been so easy, so justifiable, to involve myself more, and under different circumstances, I would have. After my unintentional hands-off approach, I am questioning my own judgment on when my help is really necessary, and when it’s only in the service of smoothing a path that should stay a little rough.

I still have no idea what facts my youngest son chose to convey about the life of Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, although I do know that I could not personally read his illegible notecards. My daughter presented her final speech on Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school, to me when I came home late the night before it was due. Had I helped, the report would have been more about Dr. Blackwell and less about Ginger and Blackie, the horses she had during her childhood. (I wisely refrained from suggesting changes at that point.)

It didn’t seem to matter. Their teacher didn’t want the best oral book reports. She wanted their best oral book reports. Neither child got a perfect score, but both came home feeling mostly successful — and knowing that they had no one to thank for that success but themselves.

The challenge, said Ms. Lythcott-Haims, is to trust that our children are both capable and motivated. “We can be so beautifully surprised at how our kids step in, step forward, and really claim that agency and responsibility in their own lives,” she said.

And if they don’t? “We act as if it’s all make or break for their future, and we need to be involved, to make sure,” she said. “What’s the worst thing that can happen if you don’t intervene?”

Let the teacher be the teacher, she said. Let the student be the student. And let the learning happen. You’ve already been through fourth grade.

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Is it Really A.D.H.D. or Just Immaturity?

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Credit Getty Images

New research shows that the youngest students in a classroom are more likely to be given a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder than the oldest. The findings raise questions about how we regard those wiggly children who just can’t seem to sit still – and who also happen to be the youngest in their class.

Researchers in Taiwan looked at data from 378,881 children ages 4 to 17 and found that students born in August, the cut-off month for school entry in that country, were more likely to be given diagnoses of A.D.H.D. than students born in September. The children born in September would have missed the previous year’s cut-off date for school entry, and thus had nearly a full extra year to mature before entering school. The findings were published Thursday in The Journal of Pediatrics.

While few dispute that A.D.H.D. is a legitimate disability that can impede a child’s personal and school success and that treatment can be effective, “our findings emphasize the importance of considering the age of a child within a grade when diagnosing A.D.H.D. and prescribing medication for treating A.D.H.D.,” the authors concluded. Dr. Mu-Hong Chen, a member of the department of psychiatry at Taipei Veterans General Hospital in Taiwan and the lead author of the study, hopes that a better understanding of the data linking relative age at school entry to an A.D.H.D. diagnosis will encourage parents, teachers and clinicians to give the youngest children in a grade enough time and help to allow them to prove their ability.

Other research has shown similar results. An earlier study in the United States, for example, found that roughly 8.4 percent of children born in the month before their state’s cutoff date for kindergarten eligibility are given A.D.H.D. diagnoses, compared to 5.1 percent of children born in the month immediately afterward.

So how should we interpret data showing different rates of A.D.H.D. diagnosis among populations of children who are similar in everything other than relative age at school entry? Cautiously, says Michael Manos, the head of Cleveland Clinic Children’s A.D.H.D. Center for Evaluation and Treatment.

“The kind of attention that you have to use in school is the kind of attention that’s difficult for a person with A.D.H.D.,” so attention deficits are more readily recognized in a classroom situation, he said. “If the diagnoses are performed accurately, then some kids are getting noticed sooner than other kids,” he said. If younger children with A.D.H.D. are starting treatment earlier because they’re starting school earlier, then that’s a good thing.

But that presumes the diagnosis is an accurate one. “When you take people who are in a 15-minute pediatric primary care physician’s office visit, and the mother describes hyperactivity and the physician automatically prescribes medication, that’s a problem,” Dr. Manos said. Many parents who describe concerns about children’s behavior “aren’t describing developmentally inappropriate behavior,” he said. “They’re describing behavior that does not meet certain expectations,” and that can be the issue in classroom settings as well, where some students are older than others.

“I think the link between age at school entry and A.D.H.D. diagnoses are not really about being young or ‘not ready,’” said Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education who has studied kindergarten readiness, by email. “Instead, I think they are about a child’s relative age. “

“In early childhood classrooms, where a month or two age difference can make a big difference,” she continued, “ teachers perceive the youngest children in the class as having more attention struggles, and behavioral struggles, than the older children, irrespective of the child’s actual age.” When those teachers flag those struggles, the path to a diagnosis is paved, but the diagnosis itself still depends on the expertise of the clinician.

Stephen Hinshaw, co-author of “A.D.H.D: What Everyone Needs to Know,” said that early recognition of attention deficits “could be an opportunity for early intervention for all kindergartners, as our society struggles to balance achievement gaps, ever earlier and stronger achievement expectations, and high student-teacher ratios in Transitional K programs, as well as for evidence-based intervention for 4-year-olds with bona fide A.D.H.D.”

“On the other hand, if this is the ticket for overzealous labeling of kids, mainly boys, who are simply needing more time to mature, that’s not what we need,” Dr. Hinshaw said.